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Well tomorrow night’s the night! I am about to crawl into bed before tomorrow morning’s early start and flying down to Melbourne for the launch of Joe Reich’s I Know Precious Little at 6.30 at Readings, 701 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, East Melbourne.

Oh and I will be presenting the author.

Now as for the future of this blog – I am going to continue writing reviews. Frankly I am having too much fun. I also have some news – Stephanie has set me yet another challenge! This time it is to see just how many books I can read on the 22 hour flight home to Dublin. I decided to visit my folks for a short holiday and she thought this a challenge almost as demanding as my two hundred and eighty seven reviews….well it will mean missing out on the on-flight entertainment.

Looking forward to what the future holds people.

And if you’re around tomorrow night in Melbourne, do drop round to say hello.

YesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes

I have been granted an initial term of residency in Australia. Stephanie and I are over the moon.

Yes, this is cooler than an Ewok driving a DeLorean.

Thanks to everyone who has supported us. It’s been an incredible ten months or so. I never could have managed to pull through with a smile on my face without this blog and you were all a part of that. Thank you. My story now has its happy ending.

God, now what am I going to do?

‘Wait, I thought the guest blogs were over?’ I hear you exclaim. Well, yes but I received this today from my former editor (as well as mentor, friend and all round stand-up gent) Ciaran Pringle and decided to throw it up here. After all, it was during my time of working with Ciaran that I first travelled out to Australia and met Stephanie. So I have very fond memories of that period.

Also there is some big news coming shortly. Very excited. Cheers folks – Emmet. 

Every now and then, I decide to live dangerously and judge a book by its cover. The odds are stacked against me, but that’s what makes the rare discovery of a gem so exciting. A couple of weeks back I was moseying through my favourite bookshop here in Dublin when I saw what looked like a block of wood on one of the display tables. It was, of course, a book with a wood-effect cover. Curious, I picked it up and read the title: The Case for Working with your Hands – or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good. A shiver ran down my spine. Here was a book about a subject that has occupied my thoughts on and off for almost thirty years – the entire duration of my seemingly endless career as a civil servant. Before running to the till, however, I scanned a couple of pages from the introduction to check for signs of pop psychology. You know the sort of thing I mean – chapter headings based on Arcade Fire song titles or repeated references to ‘self-actualisation’. Mercifully, it was free of all flummery. I bought it on the spot.

The American author, Matthew Crawford, is a philosopher (a real one) by training and a motorbike mechanic by inclination. As a teenager, he picked up extra pocket money helping in a local garage. From there, he graduated to a specialist motorbike repair shop, where he earned enough to put himself through the University of Chicago. After several years following the expected academic path, lecturing, working in a ‘think tank’, it became increasingly apparent that for him, fixing bikes was more satisfying, more – here’s the ‘eureka’ bit – intellectually challenging, than researching and writing papers on social policy. The really interesting thing about Crawford is that he took the next step – he chucked in the job at the think tank and opened his own bike repair shop, where he works to this day. The college grad became a tradesman.

Crawford uses his unlikely career path to explore the world of work and in particular to debunk the deeply entrenched notion that working with your hands is inherently inferior to working with your head. As this beautifully written book amply demonstrates, restoring a thirty year old Honda to its original state, or rewiring a house, or making a fitted wardrobe, requires as much if not more brain power than many desk-bound, white collar jobs – and is a hell of a lot more rewarding on many levels, though not necessarily at wallet level.

The introduction of mass-production processes into manufacturing in the early part of the 20th century is when the rot really set in. When Henry Ford started building ‘automobiles’, employees could expect to be involved in the construction and assembly of an entire car. This, Henry realised, was not an efficient way of churning out Model Ts for an insatiable market. Much better to have an assembly line, with each employee doing a specific task over and over again. It worked. But what made Henry as rich as Croesus turned his employees into automatons. Their jobs had been reduced to actions. Crawford rightly recognises this as a pivotal moment, when thinking was separated from doing.

Soon, the ‘time and motion’ men were applying the logic of the assembly line to every job, from processing insurance claims to making pencils. Complicated tasks were broken down into their component parts and these parts were distributed to employees who, in many cases, had no idea what the end product of their effort was. They were cogs in a machine, paid to do modular bits of activity divorced from any tangible end result. Job satisfaction went out the window and wages became compensation for drudgery. An inevitable consequence of this atomisation of work was that manual competence became devalued. Trades were for those who couldn’t make it into the professions, or even into an office job.

Fast-forward to today, and manual competence is almost frowned upon, and certainly not encouraged by the stuff we surround ourselves with. Crawford is excellent on our disengaged relationship with physical objects, how we automatically replace old things rather than fix them, a reflex relentlessly encouraged by the advertising industry. And even if we do decide to have a go at fixing something, our efforts are likely to be stymied by needless complexity or inaccessible innards. I laughed out loud at his description of the way basic motorbike engines have become obscured by layers of ‘electronic bullshit’.

When I was a kid, whenever something around the house broke, my dad could fix it with little more than a pliers and a screwdriver. Nowadays, such self-sufficiency is all but impossible. Try fixing a stalled DVD player or even a wonky washing machine – that is if you can open the damn thing in the first place. Our stuff is complex and cryptic and not for the technically fainthearted. And anyway, the market is skewed to such an extent that it’s often cheaper to buy a new gadget than replace a part in an old one.

On the work front, the ‘knowledge economy’ is now touted as the only game in town. Get a degree, get a Ph.D., get a job on the information superhighway, churning data in a virtual world where nothing has a concrete existence and where manual competence has no relevance. This should sound familiar – it’s what a lot of us do every working day of our lives.

When I left college in 1983 with a degree in biochemistry in my back pocket, Ireland was in the grip of a full-scale depression (what’s new!) and jobs in biochemistry, or any other branch of science, were non-existent. I managed to secure an administrative post in the Civil Service, which I took on the basis that it would tide me over for six months or a year – until I got a real job in a real laboratory. A year passed, then two, then ten. By the time the economy picked up and science jobs began to appear in the ‘Appointments’ pages, my knowledge of biochemistry had become rusty and a new generation of young, up to date grads were trampling all over my C.V. So here I am, twenty-eight years later, a middle-aged, middle-manager doing a job that still feels kind of temporary to me.

This is a wonderful book. It’s thoughtful, quirky and analytical – and if you’ve ever looked out of your office window at the guy from ‘Shrubs in Tubs’ across the street planting flowers in a hanging basket and wished you were him, this book is for you. It spoke directly to me, a square peg in a round hole – and there are millions of other square pegs out there bashing themselves into round holes too.

 

When we got the call saying we were going to be on the show, Mom went nuts. She kept saying, “I knew they’d pick us!” It was kind of sad – does she think they chose us because we’re so fascinating? But I know the truth. They picked us because they think we’re this big mother-daughter bomb ticking away with secrets and they’re just waiting for  us to explode.

The other night I was still looking for book recommendations and I found this list on Popsugar about titles currently being adapted to. The seventh out of the fifteen books listed is The Dogs of Babel, the first book by author Carolyn Parkhurst. Once again sadly my library did not have a copy, but thanks to the Wollongong council online  service I reserved this book.

Which was handy.

We join a number of contestants participating in a globe-hopping reality television show that bears a strong resemblance to The Amazing Race. The fictional show is called ‘Lost and Found’ and also features teams of two competing in a race around the world, having to solve riddles and race down foreign streets yelling at the native passersby for location of certain landmarks. They also have to carry an increasing number of exotic objects, including some cacophonous parrots, from city to city.

Yes it all seems somewhat familiar. There are also questions as to how ‘real’, all of this is. Laura and her daughter Cassie are dealing with what appear to be typical parent and child dilemmas. Christian evangelist couple Justin and Abby have gone on the show to preach the joys of abandoning a homosexual lifestyle for the love of Christ. Brothers Jeff and Carl are the comedians of the group, although both have recently been divorced from their respective wives. Finally Dallas and Juliet are former child stars making one last break for fame. A million dollars is at stake for the contestants, but their dignity is also at risk, their lives being exploited for entertainment value.

Each of the people involved in the Lost and Found contest are hiding secrets. As time passes, the stress mounts and alien cultures are boiled down to a series of travelogue pre-scripted moments for the viewers back in the States. What constitutes a genuine ‘emotional journey’, for the individuals on camera and what is nothing less than the callous exploitation of people, reduced through the show to one-note clichés.

Parkhurst cleverly tells the story from the perspective of each of the individuals taking part in the show. Often the differing accounts reveal more about the events described and the reader learns more about each of the people’s past, including repressed sexuality, infant illness, hidden pregnancy and hypocrisy. At base, however, this story begins and ends with the relationship between a mother and her daughter.

What I admire most about this book is how neatly the author avoids the trap of pointing the finger of blame at reality television for being an entirely corrupt and exploitative  medium. Juliet and Dallas are not the only actors – everyone on the show is performing, to some degree or another, pretending to a sense of normality that does not exist. The book is hopeful where others might be snide, or cynical, which is something I find greatly endearing.

Yes the issues featured here are quite emotionally draining, but at the same time there is a surprising sense of positivity throughout.

Timely and mature storytelling.

“How did you become a boy, Corinna, and a Folk Keeper?”

“I changed my name on the Foundling Certificate. It’s been four years now.”

But I said no more. He needn’t know I was sent to the Rhysbridge Home with a shipment of other ophans, including one boy who had apprenticed to become the Home’s new Folk Keeper. He needn’t know I took advantage of being unknown to them all to steal a pair of breeches, cut my hair, and turn myself into Corin. I will never tell anyone how I frightened the new Folk Keeper so dreadfully his very first night in the Cellar that he fled. I do not like to think of what I did – of how he screamed! – but I force myself to write it. I cannot let myself go soft.

A month ago I put out a general call through Twitter for book recommendations. As fast as fingers could type I got a series of great recommendations, including Franny Billingsley‘s Chime (which unfortunately my library did not have a copy of), so I tracked down this other title by her. If folks out there have any other Young Adult fiction books to pass on, please drop me a line here, or on Twitter.

Corinne is the Folk Keeper of Rhysbridge, disguised as an orphan boy (absent the last two letters of her name). The role is of extreme importance to the community. The Folk are an implacable species of carnivorous phantoms, that can only be appeased by the provision of certain sacrifices by a ‘Keeper’. Corinne has tricked and deceived her way into learning the trade of the Folk Keeper and through her status is enabled to maintain the pretence of being a boy. While she was never apprenticed and directly taught knowledge of how to protect the inhabitants of Rhysbridge, ‘Corin’, has talents of her own. Her hair grows to an extraordinary length during the night and she can call to mind the exact time to the minute.

Then one day the Lord Hartley Merton arrives at Rhysbridge and changes her life, even as his ebbs away. Corinne is adopted by his family and made the Folk Keeper of their estate Cliffsend – much larger in scale, with many secrets in its long history, including that of the Lord’s first wife, the tragic Rona. The Folk who reside there are also much savager. Corinne’s simple tricks will not be enough to hold them off and for all her stolen insight into the business of Keepers, she finds her skills are not sufficient.

In order to survive she will need to learn more about the Merton family. She develops a friendly relationship with the son of Hartley’s second wife, Finian, but as her feelings for him change, the Corin persona becomes harder to maintain. Also Sir Edward, the thwarted heir to the estate, seems to be plotting a coup that somehow involves Cliffsend’s new Folk Keeper.

Billingsley book is filled with subtle magicks, dark supernatural presences and hints of Celtic folklores. The Sealfolk in particular resemble Irish myths about selkies – in fact, a friend of mine was told growing up that she was a selkie by her brother. There is even a personification of death referred to briefly named Soulsucker, who is said to be warded off by black satin. I really enjoyed how the author introduced these local folk tales into her fictional world, adopting a darker hue with the blood sacrifices offered up to the Folk to prevent the bespoiling of crops.

The slow thawing of Corinne’s worldview is also delicately portrayed, which builds to a gentle romance with the perceptive Finian. In fact midway through this book, the high concept finally hit me between the eyes – this book is Yentl with added murderous ghosts!

Thoroughly enjoyable, with a neat line in supernatural horror and an entertaining mystery. I must follow up on Twitter recommendations more often.

Hi. Just wanted to stop by and say thank you to everyone who sent on their well wishes, and to those who submitted their guest reviews and enabled me to have my husband back long enough to get re-married. We had a lovely day, and he’s already back at the reviews…guess the honeymoon is over! ;) With love, Mrs Stephanie.

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.

And he said:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

When I was fifteen years old I began taking driving lessons. For those of you out there keeping score, I am thirty-one and still not legally allowed to drive a car….yeah, I get distracted often.

ANYWAY – my driving instructor was a very patient young fellow, with whom I tended to rant about sundry subjects. It was a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon, as he cleverly noticed that I became less tense when chatting away and encouraged my little flights of digressive fancy while speeding through suburban Dublin. One day he handed me a copy of Khalil Gibran‘s The Prophet. It inspired in me an interest in philosophy, which I later chose to study in college.

Here’s the thing though – before today I had no memory of the book itself. For it to have presumably made enough of an impact on me that I decided – ‘yes, repetitive beard stroking while talking about Life is what I hope to do for the rest of mine’ – and yet nothing of Gibran’s writing has stayed with me struck me as extremely curious. So when I saw a copy of the book today I decided to revisit it.

The titular prophet is Almustafa, a teacher in a foreign land who has spent years in the city of Orphalese and is shortly about to sail home. Before he leaves, the people of Orphalese led by a priestess named Almitra requests that he give them one last sermon. He agrees and commences answering questions on various topics such as marriage, death, work, the act of giving, in the form of rhetorical parables.

The style of the book is a form of ongoing free verse, which lends itself to Gibran incessant use of metaphors and riddles. It certainly is a pleasant read, but Almustafa comes across as needlessly obtuse at times and then overly fond of truisms at others. ‘Love should not be possessive’, is certainly not a revelation, but it is phrased in such a way to seem enigmatic.

This particular passage struck me as interesting:

But your god-self dwells not alone in your being.

Much in you is still man, and much in you is not yet man,

But a shapeless pigmy that walks asleep in the

mist searching for its own awakening.

Is it just imagination or does that sound an awful lot like Freud’s Id, ego and super-ego mental structure? Gibran first published his work only three years after Freud introduced the notion of a tripartite division of the mind. Perhaps it is just a coincidence.

What annoys me about the Prophet is his abundant hero-worship. This strikes me as quite false. I want to imagine how an encounter between Almustafa and Nietsche’s Zarathustra would go (I would pay good money for a cage battle…). For one Gibran’s philosophical hero is quite the populist. His words do not move the citizens of Orphalese to anger. In fact they merely listen passively to his monologue. Zarathustra, by comparison, was a hermit who presented people with terribly upsetting notions such as ‘god is dead’, which is not the kind of thing that inspires the devotion enjoyed by Almustafa.

I am sure all of this sounds quite silly, but to my mind wisdom is something that is not only hard-won, but incredibly lonely. Gibran’s book encourages a curious faddishness, a naieve fantasy of philosophical wisdom, which no doubt explains its popularity during the 1960’s counter-culture.

Prettily phrased, but lacking any true rhetorical heft.

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